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The novel opens with the introduction of the two main characters, Art and Gil. Art will serve as the narrator of the entire story from the first person point of view. It is immediately obvious that this is a Western tale. The two men have just passed the Eastern Divide into the frontier land of the West.
Art and Gil are friends who have traveled together for five years; they have grown so comfortable with each other that they feel no need to talk, often riding in silence. Sometimes, however, they get into a fight, for Gil tends to be aggressive and does not take criticism well. For most of the winter, Art and Gil have been traversing the range. They are excited to finally come close to civilization and spy the little town of Bridger's Wells in the big valley below. They want to ride proudly into the village and be accepted by its citizens. The happiness of the men is reflected in the weather. The winter storms have passed, clearing the road into the valley. The first signs of spring are also everywhere, with the green of the first plants emerging and the squirrels and chipmunks scampering about. The sun is also warm and the sky clear blue.
As the friends ride eagerly into town, where they have visited before, there are ominous hints presented. Bridger's Wells seems too quiet and half-empty. Also the paint on the church is peeling, and the other houses and buildings are unpainted and somber in appearance. Art and Gil notice that there are few horses tied in front of the inn, and only one man, the local bum, is seen on the main street. When they enter Canby's saloon, the local gathering place, everything is very quiet and serious, even though nothing much has changed inside. There are still four covered tables and several familiar pictures hanging on the walls. The four men playing poker, however, seem almost lifeless.
Gil asks Canby about Rose Mapen, the beautiful woman that Gil has dated during his previous visits to Bridger's Wells. Canby explains that she has been driven out of town, not because she did something wrong but because the married women were afraid that she might do something wrong with their husbands. Canby succinctly states, "The place is small," an accurate description of Bridger's Wells in more ways than one. Before long, it will be apparent just how small-minded the town can be.
When Moore, one of the workers from Drew's ranch, enters the saloon, Canby asks him about Sheriff Risley and the rustlers, but Moore refuses to have a discussion in front of Art and Gil, for he does not trust them since they are outsiders. Canby later explains to the newcomers that the town has been plagued with cattle rustling for months, losing over a thousand head of cattle. There has even been talk of a lynching party to find and punish the rustlers.
Moore invites Art and Gil to play poker with him. Gil constantly wins, causing the other men to become suspicious of him. Farnley even hints that perhaps he is a rustler. Infuriated at the comment, Gil hits Farnley hard, and a fight erupts. No one in the bar makes a move; they simply watch the two men fighting. Canby finally hits Gil with a bottle to stop the fight. When Gil regains consciousness, he decides he has not won the last game fairly and decides to return ten dollars to Farnley. In spite of his aggressive nature, he is obviously a moral man.